Come June, Sikkim could lose it sole flight out

Spicejet tells AAI it won’t fly to Pakyong unless navigational equipment is installed

Gangtok, 21 May: If media reports are to be believed, Spicejet, the only carrier operating flights out of Sikkim, has decided not to service the Pakyong Airport unless the Airport Authority of India installs navigational equipment at the airport.

A news-report datelined Calcutta and published in The Telegraph today quotes the Regional Sales Manager, East, of Spicejet, Debjit Ghosh, as informing that the airline has decided to withdraw flights to and from Pakyong from 01 June onwards.

The reason cited is the high number of cancellations from Pakyong owing to poor visibility conditions. As per the Regional Sales Manager, the airline was averaging a staggering 20 cancellations per month from Pakyong. The carrier was operation a daily Kolkata-Pakyong-Kolkata flight, a route serviced by a 78-seater Bombardier Q-400 series aircraft.

Ever since the airport was inaugurated by the Prime Minister in September last year, it has been hounded by frequent cancellations which required booked passengers to take a last-minute drive down to Bagdogra as an alternative. Several VIPs, including the Vice President of India during his recent visit to Sikkim, had to opt for Bagdogra against the planned itinerary of flying direct into Sikkim.

The report in question goes on to explain that in the absence of navigational equipment, the minimum visibility required to land at Pakyong was 5KMs. In comparison, the Calcutta airport, which has the required equipment, can have planes landing when visibility is as low as 50 metres.

The report then goes on to quote an unnamed AAI official as explaining that installing the required equipment would require the runway to be at least 150 metres wide. The runway at Pakyong is currently only 80 metres wide.

The unnamed official goes on to explain that the runway cannot be widened because landowners are not agreeing to give land. The land acquisition for the airport has remained a vexed issue for a while now, it may be recalled.

Be that as it may, what begs question is why none of the planners realized the need for navigational equipment when the airport was being designed. That should be standard equipment for any airport in any hilly region, especially so in a Sikkim with its record of rainy days and foggy winters. Had this been factored in at the beginning itself, adequate land would have been acquired before land acquisition became stuck in the current environment of allegations and counter claims.

Questions probably also need to be asked on whether Pakyong was the best suited location to develop an airport or whether there were better options which were ignored.

These questions will probably never be asked or answered in earnest. Meanwhile, what Sikkim stands to lose is the claim that it enjoys air-connectivity. And yes, it was always only a claim because on ground, this connectivity was always too erratic to be of any consequence.